President of hotel operations for Europe, the Middle East and Africa at Four Seasons Christopher Norton discusses his vision for 2014.

Hotelier Middle East: Which hotels do you expect to open in the Middle East in 2014?

Christopher Norton: We are opening three properties in the Middle East in late 2014/early 2015. Four Seasons Resort Dubai at Jumeirah Beach is a highly anticipated opening in our Middle East pipeline. Other key openings include Four Seasons Hotel Bahrain Bay and Four Seasons Hotel Casablanca.

HME: In total, how many rooms do these hotels comprise?

Norton: Four Seasons Resort Dubai at Jumeirah Beach comprises 220 rooms, including 49 suites. Four Seasons Hotel Bahrain Bay will comprise 263 rooms, including suites, while Four Seasons Hotel Casablanca will have 178 rooms, including suites.

HME: What is your hero hotel opening in 2014 and why?

Norton: Our big Middle East opening for 2014 is Four Seasons Resort Dubai at Jumeirah Beach. As Four Seasons has expanded our footprint across the Middle East, anticipation for a property in Dubai has been growing. The Resort is expected to open in late-2014.

Situated on a prime beachfront site, in the most prestigious residential district of Dubai, the Resort is located in a peaceful setting, at the end of Jumeirah Beach Road; away from the hustle and bustle of the city’s other more corporate hotels. With 270 meters of beachfront on the Arabian Gulf, our guests will enjoy watersports and relaxing days by the sea. Remaining very close to the city’s business district, our resort will also appeal to business travelers.

HME: How can the hotel industry best entice new, young talent?

Norton: Four Seasons has been named by its employees to FORTUNE magazine’s list of the “100 Best Companies to Work For” for 16 years in a row – one of just 13 organizations to have the distinction of being recognsed every year since the list’s inception in 1998.

This recognition stems in part from our belief that our greatest asset and the key to our success is our people. At Four Seasons, we hire for attitude and train for skill. Every employee across the organization is empowered to think creatively and elevate the experience for each and every guest. They are encouraged to push past the fear of failure to develop a new service, a more efficient system or an original amenity tailored for a guest’s unique interests. This philosophy, and a fundamental respect for our fellow individuals, provides the strong foundation for our culture of quality and service and allows us to attract and retain the type of men and women who can deliver on this promise.

Four Seasons is on an exciting growth path with more than 60 new projects under development – many of which will see us entering new markets and developing a presence in major city centres and desirable resort destinations around the world. As our portfolio continues to expand it creates growth within the company, generating opportunities for employees to work in new destinations and encouraging professional mobility and movement. We offer young talent the opportunity to work with one of the world’s leading luxury brands and a leader and innovator within the hospitality industry.

Moreover, we have many initiatives in place that actively promote staff development, cross training and mentoring which are very attractive for young talent hoping to carve out a long-term career in the hospitality industry. The company has dedicated Learning & Development Managers who lead training efforts in conjunction with Hotel Managers to ensure senior level support. Four Seasons has developed a wide range of in-house training programs that are delivered locally across all levels. These include line-level circuit training on service delivery, supervisory development programs, personality typing and one-on-one executive coaching. Employees also have access to a full service E Knowledge Suite and are supported by training sessions with managers.

HME: What do you think are the main challenges hotel GMs will face in 2014?

Norton: It’s no secret that there is more competition now than ever in the luxury hospitality space – the commoditization of luxury is one of the industry’s biggest threats. We believe that the only sustainable differentiator is one’s ability to customize the guest experience, to truly understand their needs (known and unarticulated) and to deliver against them for a memorable experience at all levels.

Guest recognition – understanding what our guests value, delivering it and keeping track of their changing needs is one of the most important things that we can do as a brand and at the individual property level. While challenging, it also affords us our biggest opportunity as it allows us the chance to build an emotional connection with guests and not only understand, but acknowledge their unique preferences through highly customized service.

HME: The rejuvenation of hotel F&B has been a hot topic in 2013, with some hotels restructuring F&B management, hiring at the corporate level, etc. What is your approach to reinvigorating F&B in 2014?

Norton: A restaurant today has to be an exciting and fun place, a place that makes guests feel great – and this goes beyond the food. Four Seasons has always operated some of the most sought-after restaurants and bars in the world.

F&B is a huge focus area for Four Seasons and one that has received a significant push in recent years. We have had a number of concept renovations and new bar and restaurant openings across the Middle East portfolio in recent years, among them Nusantao in Four Seasons Hotel Doha, 8 – the specialty Cantonese restaurant and Graffiti Bar at Four Seasons Hotel Cairo at Nile Plaza, and the brand new Olea Levantine restaurant at Four Seasons Hotel Amman.

Percorso, the Italian restaurant at the new Four Seasons Hotel Lion Palace St.Petersburg, is a great example of what today’s guest looks for in a restaurant – a concept that is globally relevant and has a truly international flavour. The Percorso team brought together a Russian location, an Italian food concept led by an Italian chef, a Japanese designer and Canadian management.

Four Seasons restaurant guests have high expectations around food, drinks, design and lifestyle and so we focus on meeting their needs. A hand-picked group of senior Four Seasons team members, known as the Four Seasons F&B Task Force, assist hotels across the region in the creation and support of dynamic F&B concepts suited to individual markets. Our goal is to create a dining experience that is memorable, recognizing that today’s restaurant consumer is looking for a less formal, accessible experience. A place where they can enjoy the company of others, have a quality meal and feel comfortable in their surroundings. Relevance to our guests’ needs, fun and affordability are our guiding principles.

Today, dining out is more of a lifestyle factor than ever before. There is less and less demand for special occasion dining. We are responding to this change by reworking some of our fine dining restaurants and creating new ones that are in line with the needs of our customer.

We now engage designers with specific expertise in restaurant design to develop spaces that make a statement, creating restaurants that are interesting, experiential and memorable.

We aim to create a sense of place in our restaurants, with a strong food and beverage concept that is contextual to the destination, leveraging the expertise of our chefs who not only immerse themselves in the local cuisine, but bring a wealth of international influences to their craft. In general, our chefs have experience working in various parts of the world over the course of their careers.

HME: What are the key travel trends you are seeing emerge?

Norton: Today hotel brands deal with a digitally active and highly mobile guest. The demise of certain traditional media outlets, adoption of tablets at record pace, and the rise of mobile social applications, such as Instagram, are clear indicators that not just access to information but the consumption of information in the travel sphere has changed and will continue to change in the years to come.

Hotel brands must find ways to naturally insert themselves into the digital habitat of the new luxury consumer. Efforts surrounding social media marketing, social search, social advertising and overall content marketing must be re-evaluated in order to capture the new global luxury consumer on their decision making journey. A global shift in lifestyle trends and online behaviour necessitates new solutions to meet the demands of the affluent travel consumers.

As consumers continue to become more digitally savvy and selective about how and where they receive information, travel industry brands must rise to the challenge by providing a virtual brand experience that reflects their products and services while informing and entertaining their consumers. Brands must effectively become media channels to fulfil the needs and exceed the expectations of the new global travel consumer. At Four Seasons , reimaging the way we share travel experiences and engage with consumers around the globe has energized and inspired our team as we look forward to the opportunities new technologies, trends and insights will bring in the year ahead .

HME: What are you doing to target new markets such as the BRIC market and Generation Y travellers?

Norton: The emergence of China, Russia, India and Brazil into the international travel market, and the resulting influx of international travelers, represents an unprecedented opportunity to attract the luxury traveler.

The BRIC markets have seen some of our most aggressive expansion in recent years. Today we operate 8 properties in China – at Beijing, Guangzhou, Hangzhou at West Lake, Hong Kong, Macao – Cotai Strip, Shanghai, Shanghai Pudong and Shenzhen.

Our upcoming projects in Bengaluru and Delhi in 2016 will be dynamic complements to our existing hotel in Mumbai as we further establish the Four Seasons brand in India.

One of our key openings of 2013 was in St Petersburg, with our second Russian property due to open in Moscow in 2014.

Brazil and Brazilian travelers represent an important growth market to Four Seasons. As we explore growth opportunities in Brazil and anticipate the opening of our first Brazilian property in the next several years we continue to actively market to Brazilian guests. Four Seasons has a brand social media presence dedicated solely to the Brazilian market with Portuguese Facebook, Instagram and Twitter accounts.

With regard to communicating to younger audiences, our focus is less on the demographic segment defined as the millennial and more on someone we define as the modern luxury traveler. Many of the behaviors and preferences attached to the millennial demographic are not exclusive to this age segment – they signify an attitude, not an age – and their needs and desires when travelling span across demographics.

Modern luxury travelers have an insatiable curiosity for new experiences and value technology, identity, design and adventure. They want ultimate personalization, but simple, seamless service delivery. Travel for the modern luxury traveler is about hands on, high touch experience, about growing, learning – experiencing wildlife up close, learning a new skill, understanding the history of a locale, learning a niche trade.

They also value brands that make them feel like they’re appreciated and understood – brands that speak to them in the places where they are converging – online and on mobile.

These days many of our guests are extremely tech savvy and travel with their own preferred mobile devices. As a result we must support a high degree of functionality. According to the Luxury Traveler Technology Survey, commissioned by Four Seasons, the most important in-room tech amenities for guests include: excellent cell phone coverage, fast WiFi, charging stations for multiple devices, power outlets by beside tables and wireless printing from a tablet or smartphone. These considerations factor into room design and layout – such as determining the location of power sources and charging stations – to ensure we are in-step with the ever evolving needs of our guests.

HME: With smartphones and tablets becoming key customer service tools, what mobile services are you providing for guests?

Norton: The hospitality industry is extremely high touch and technology will partially replace the importance of face-to-face interaction. At Four Seasons technology is never introduced as a gimmick; it must support our goal of enhancing the guest experience at our properties.

Moreover, we recognize that each guest is unique in their technological preferences and the use of many new technologies is offered as a choice. For example, at Four Seasons Hotel Los Angeles at Beverly Hills we recently introduced in-room iPads. More than 50% of guests reported using the iPads for activities such as: ordering room service, booking spa appointments and concierge services and scheduling wake up calls and turn down service. But, we also continue to offer a hard copy of the room service menu because we know that many of our guests prefer to customize their orders and place by phone.

Our offerings for today’s mobile and tech-savvy traveler include new property apps, Fast Track check-in, and mobile technology in all of our house cars, allowing travelers to stay connected every step of their trip with us. Some of our services include:

Skype check-in: During the drive from the airport to the resort guests en route to Four Seasons Resort Costa Rica at Peninsula Papagayo, can now connect live via Skype with Four Seasons staff to check in, book restaurant and spa reservations and order room service, easing the check-in process when they arrive at their destination. Four Seasons Resort Maui at Wailea is also piloting the program.

iPad access to hotel services in cars and guest rooms: Combining information and access into one easy step, guests can now review dining options, room service menus, spa treatments and other services – and book them instantly with just the touch of a keypad. At hotels such as Four Seasons Hotel Doha, a unique iPad application connects guests to a live concierge via Bluetooth speakerphone technology with the touch of a button.

Business Mobility: Guests of hotels such as Four Seasons Hotel Doha can now also travel to and from the airport, and around the city, ensconced in a new bespoke 2013 Viano multi-utility vehicle from Mercedes-Benz, the newest addition to the Hotel’s fleet of luxury vehicles. Guests have access to the latest technological tools, including built-in mobile phone connections, chargers for multiple electronic devices and a roaming high-speed internet connection, plus spacious reclining leather seats, a panoramic sunroof and stylish interior finishes.

Moreover, Four Seasons continues to set the bar in social media engagement, leading the industry with continuous evolution and innovation. In 2013, Four Seasons received three Travel + Leisure Social Media in Travel and Tourism (SMITTY) Awards, including Best Hotel Chain. With a strong presence on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Youtube, Google+, Vine and more, Four Seasons continues to meet guests where they already are, embracing the power of social media to deepen guest engagement in meaningful and relevant ways.

For example, in August 2013 we launched a new program on Pinterest called Pin.Pack.Go which enables guests to plan their trip in collaboration with our local experts and concierge teams. In three short months we saw 110 guest boards created, 48 properties around the world received collaboration requests and we witnessed a 100% increase in brand Pinterest followers.

We have also introduced other ways to leverage our greatest asset – our people – in the digital sphere. We have introduced Local Experts blogs from several of our properties including Beverly Hills, Buenos Aires and Prague that provide unique and exciting experiences around the destinations from our incredible concierge teams.

HME: Where in the GCC do you see scope for diversification of the market and how are you targeting price-conscious customers?

Norton: Educating consumers on the value of a luxury experience is about underscoring the return on their investment – both their financial investment and that of their most precious commodity – time. No matter the affluence, time is the one thing you cannot buy.

How our guests spend their time is of the utmost importance to us and this translates into our service approach. For the business traveler this may mean helping them maximize their time and effectiveness to achieve the purpose of their trip through convenient time-saving services such as our 1 hour pressing service, 24-hour room service to accommodate late arrivals, in-room technology that is easy to use and house-cars with wireless access

For the leisure traveler value is about realizing the very best from their travel experience – opportunities for relaxation and discovery that are unique, customized, authentic and unforgettable, and through thoughtful surprises and seamless service.

If they’ve forgotten a personal item at home we’ll take care of it, if they’ve brought their children and want some alone time we’ll take care of it, if they have dietary needs we’ll take care of it, if they want exclusive access to a location we’ll take care of it – our people will make it happen.

At Four Seasons, we have always believed that a unique understanding of our guests is the starting point for creating the kind of experience they want and value.

HME: What is your vision for 2014?

Norton: The Middle East has remained one of our most active regions in terms of development. Four Seasons will have properties in almost every capital city in the GCC within the next few years which will serve to further consolidate our presence in the market. In addition to a strong development pipeline, we have in recent years invested continuously in further enhancing our physical product and service innovation across our existing Middle East property portfolio.

With our recently established Development office in Dubai, we plan to be much more active in Africa and the Middle East in the next couple of years, pursuing both new-build developments and conversions, such as the existing hotel that was upgraded and converted to a Four Seasons Safari Lodge last year in Serengeti, Tanzania.

Our goal is to be the first and only choice for the Middle East traveler, both at home and abroad at our 92 properties around the world. We expect to accomplish this by ensuring that we not only anticipate the needs of our Middle East guests but also develop programs and services to consistently exceed their expectations.

Our growth strategy is guided by a clear vision for the future of Four Seasons; a future unequivocally dedicated to delivering the highest calibre guest experience. We are committed to not just growing bigger, but better – as our business has grown and our guests have evolved and changed, we’ve continually pushed the bar on innovative services and products to enhance the guest experience.

We are well positioned for growth and success because we know what consumers want – recognition and customised service – and we can deliver better than anyone else.

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